A Balanced View of Congress

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Saturday, December 7, 2002
When I was in Congress, a curious thing would happen several times a year. A professional group would visit my office, sit down with me, and ask for some small change to the laws affecting them. What was strange about this was not that they were lobbying me– lots of people did that– but how they did so. Most groups, when they get a chance to meet a member of Congress, are curious about lots of things, and especially the big ones: the economy, the deficit, foreign affairs. This group, though, only wanted to talk about the one minor change affecting their profession, with very technical legislation and very specific language in mind. Once that was done, they'd get up and leave. My colleagues confirmed my suspicion that this scene was repeated in countless congressional offices. 

Now, they were doing nothing improper. But their lack of interest in the bigger picture struck me. When professional groups focus narrowly on their own interests, it’s usually a sign that Congress needs to weigh their proposals carefully and look at the broader national interest. Sometimes, though, Congress fails to do this. When that happens, the results can be painful, as critics contend has been the case with Congress’s indulgent treatment of the financial and accounting communities. 

This is worth remembering, because it hints at why Congress can make mistakes. Critics of our national legislature often try to paint it as aloof from the cares of other Americans, a distant and unapproachable institution. In fact, the opposite is true: Congress is highly responsive to pressure. Sometimes that pressure comes from all directions, as people in every walk of life weigh in on a matter they care about deeply; sometimes, it comes from a single source that no one else much notices. 

In many cases, this process has produced laws and innovations of which we can rightly be proud. After the Depression, the new regulatory systems that softened future financial shocks to our economy were shaped by Congress. Social Security, which has helped millions of older Americans live out their years in dignity, rather than poverty, had to go through Congress, as well. The civil rights acts of the 1960s were crafted in Congress, as were the series of measures that, in the last 40 years, have helped clean up our nation's air and water. All of this happened because members of Congress listened to other Americans, saw problems with their own eyes, and acted. 

But some Americans can effectively urge Congress to approve legislation that doesn't pass the test of time. Our Founders made Congress a deliberative body in which legislation can take months and even years to pass in large part because they were aware of this, and wanted to make it difficult for Congress to head off in a misguided direction. Even so, it happens. 

In fact, it's not hard to come up with a long list of congressional actions– or inaction– that with hindsight look quite unfortunate. Take this country's history of mistreating Native Americans, for example, through policies that were set by Congress. High protective tariffs in the 1930s, passed by Congress to protect various U.S. industries, deepened and lengthened the Great Depression. Our failure after the First World War to ratify the treaty setting up the League of Nations stemmed from Congress's decision not to engage the world through an international organization, a judgment that in retrospect may have helped usher in the Second World War. You can make the same argument about Congress's willingness in the 1990s to back out of our engagement in Afghanistan. Once the Soviets had been driven out, Congress lost interest in the country, which in turn left a power vacuum that the Taliban were only too happy to fill. 

Over the last decade, Congress has frequently sidestepped difficult issues. It has done little about the large number of Americans without health insurance, the long-term threats to the solvency of Social Security, or our dependence on foreign energy sources. It has generally been timid about exercising its constitutional power to commit the country to war, giving this authority to the President. And even when it has acted, as it did to provide long-term care coverage to seniors under Medicare, it then responded to a barrage of criticism from seniors upset about the premium they'd have to pay by canceling the program the following year. 

There are plenty of reasons Congress gets things wrong. Sometimes its workload is so heavy that issues don’t get the thorough consideration they need. Sometimes the questions it takes up are so complex that honest attempts at legislating a solution will fail. Sometimes there are political calculations or trade-offs that produce less-than-perfect results. And sometimes, Congress is simply trying to develop policies that it thinks reflect the interests and desires of specific groups of people– yet do not serve the interests of all the people. It is a reminder that Congress– for whatever reason– makes mistakes, even with procedures and motivations that in other circumstances can produce solid results. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)